Arab Spring

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Arab Spring

Arab Spring, in modern North African and Middle Eastern history, antigovernment demonstrations and uprisings that, from late 2010, swept many of the regions' Arab nations. Arising in large part in reaction to economic stresses, societal changes, and entrenched corrupt and repressive rule, the Arab Spring began in Tunisia in Dec., 2010, after a street vendor in Sidi Bouzid set himself on fire to protest his treatment by police and other officials. Local youths quickly protested out of sympathy, and the protests spread, with citizens getting information by satellite television, Internet social media and websites, and mobile phones (all of which played a role in many nations). After failing to restore control by force and by offering concessions, President Ben Ali fled Tunisia in Jan., 2011. In Egypt, thousands of peaceful antigovernment protesters inspired by events in Tunisia gathered in Cairo's Tahrir Square and other locations beginning in Jan., 2011. The government attempted to suppress the demonstrations, but they continued as the army stood aside; a month later President Mubarak stepped down and a military-led government was installed.

Demonstrators in Algeria, Yemen, Libya, Jordan, Bahrain, Morocco, Syria, and other Arab nations staged similar protests with more mixed results. The events in Egypt also led to large, sympathetic demonstrations in largely non-Arab Iran. Relatively small protests in Algeria had little impact, but in Morocco King Muhammad VI offered concessions that led to constitutional changes that reduced his powers, and in Jordan peaceful protests led to promises of reform by King Abdullah II but did not result in significant immediate changes. Prodemocracy demonstrations in Bahrain were violently crushed in February and March with the help of Gulf Cooperation Council (mainly Saudi) forces and the protests acquired a sectarian cast as Bahrain's Sunni government focused on Shiites in the opposition.

In Yemen, Libya, and Syria, protests in early 2011 led to prolonged conflict that approached or turned into civil war. Yemen's President Saleh offered concessions and promised not to seek reelection, but rallies and then civil strife continued. Saleh himself was severely injured in an attack in June, and in December, after protracted and previously fruitless negotiations, an interim government that included opposition members was established. In Libya, protests against Qaddafi beginning in Feb., 2011, soon became a revolution that, with protection from a UN-approved no-fly zone enforced by NATO and Arab aircraft, overthrew the longtime dictator in October. Nationwide antigovernment protests in Syria in Mar., 2011, at first resulted in concessions, but persistent demonstrations were violently suppressed by Bashar al-Assad's security forces. Despite that, protests continued throughout 2011, and some security forces joined the protests and attacked government forces. Syria's unrest also had a sectarian component, with Sunnis dominant in the opposition to the Alawite-led government, and as the conflict there became a civil war in 2012 and continued into 2013, militant Sunni Islamists played a prominent role.

In general, the political changes were greatest in those nations ruled by authoritarian leaders rather than monarchs. Marked foremost by an opposition to repression and corruption, the events brought together a mix of prodemocracy and human-rights activists and Islamists—groups that overlapped to varying degrees—in most nations. Although moderate Islamists were prominent in many of the protests, more conservative Islamists emerged as a significant political force in Egypt in the post-uprising elections that took place in Dec., 2011–Jan., 2012. In mid-2013, however, the military ousted Egypt's elected Islamist president after a new round of antigovernment demonstrations.

See studies by R. Wright (2011), M. Lynch (2012), L. Nouelhel and A. Warren (2012), T. Ramadan (2012), P. Danahar (2013), and F. A. Gerges, ed. (2013).

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